The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities presents
The Intellectual and Literary History Public Seminar Series



Malthus and China

The scale of China’s population was routinely noted by Enlightenment figures. Leibniz, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Smith added praise for Chinese civil structures, which managed to govern as one polity a remarkable mass of humans, while opening critique of China’s despotism and of an economy disinclined to foreign commerce. This is the tradition of European thought about China that Thomas Robert Malthus received and to some extent reproduced in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), and which made a dedicated chapter on China seem both necessary and sensible when he vastly expanded his Essay into its long editions (1803, 1806, 1817, 1826). This paper examines Malthus’s consideration of China in his own context, rather than reading him backwards through centuries of critique and correction, through the confusions of ‘Malthusianism’. How and why did Malthus write about China? What were the sources of information through which he could discern population trends and political economy in a part of the world so distant? What work did China perform in the Essay as a whole? And what was the wider context for Malthus’s comparative consideration of China in the world?

Alison Bashford, FBA, FAHA is Research Professor of History, UNSW. Previously she was Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History at the University of Cambridge. She has recently traced an intellectual history of population and political economy in two books: Global Population: History, Geopolitics and Life on Earth (Columbia University Press, 2014) and The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Re-reading the Principle of Population (with Joyce E. Chaplin, Princeton University Press, 2016). Her new work explores an intellectual history of nature/culture divides through the Huxley dynasty, 1825-1975.



Seminar Room, Level 4 Forgan Smith Tower (Building #1)